The findings of modern brain science utterly enthrall most people. And today’s journalists have got quite adept at trumpeting scientific findings in ways that captivate and simultaneously mislead the masses. Search the word “yoga” and “neuroscience” on Google and you’ll find an amalgam of sexy-sounding articles—everything from “Researchers find God-spot in the brain” to “Yoga heals the brain from depression.” Sounds pretty fantastic.
These are overly-simplistic and tragically misinformed headlines.
And unfortunately, yoga practitioners are some of the worst about falling prey to the antics of hype-loving journalists. As much as I love that there’s such an interest in science in our community, I have to say that most articles attempting to explain the findings of neuroscience to yogis irritate me to no end.
I think part of the problem is that when we run across a scientific finding that appears to confirm our existing view of the world, we are less likely to rationally assess the claims being made. And what we don’t realize is that those headlines have a set of unwieldy assumptions hidden behind the words.
So before you go re-posting that next ‘Science Proves ____ Works’ article, consider these five things all yogis should know about science:
1. There ain’t no spirit in science.
The very premise that neuroscience rests most of its claims upon is this: The mind is the brain. Simple as that. There’s no “vital energy” that gives you life, no Higher Self that’s reincarnated from body to body. You are, very simply, your flesh. Take a look at what Francis Crick, the Nobel-prize winning discoverer of the DNA molecule, had to say about who (or what) “you” are:
“You—your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will—are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”
According to neuroscience, if it can’t be measured… it doesn’t exist. And since “chakras,” “prana” and other esoteric-sounding concepts the ancients referred to in their texts on yoga don’t reveal themselves using the current tools of neuroscience, most researchers would deem them a bunch of hooey. So when “Science proves yoga works” (who is this Science guy anyway? I’m dying to meet him!)…. well, not exactly.
2. Yoga changes your brain. . . And so does brushing your teeth.
Yes, yoga changes your brain. But so does every single other thought, action or behavior you repeat over time. The brain is tremendously plastic; you create new neural pathways anytime you do something novel—and if you do it over and over again, you better believe those pathways will become deeper and change the structure of your brain over time. It’s called neuroplasticity.
But that bestows absolutely no credibility to yoga, meditation or any other spiritual practice. So what if meditating changes your brain? What’s it doing for your life?
3. Science doesn’t “prove” anything.
A single scientific experiment never—and I mean NEVER—definitively proves anything. That’s not how science works.
How come? Well, to start off with, one of the first things you’ll learn in a basic research methods class is that any scientific experiment will undoubtedly be convoluted with extraneous variables. Think of an extraneous variable like interference on a radio. When you try to tune into a particular signal, you don’t just hear the signal you’re interested in, but also extra static from other signals being broadcast on that channel. That static can very easily distort the findings of a scientific experiment.
Let’s take that idea to a real world example. Let’s say a scientist is interested in figuring out whether doing 30 minutes of yoga a day improves the mood of depressed individuals. The signal we’re trying to tune into here is the relationship between yoga and mood. The problem is that there’s all kinds of interference that can alter that signal.
For instance, let’s say at the end of the study the researcher does find a significant improvement in mood. How do we know that the improvement was due to the yoga and not to the instructor’s loving and compassionate presence? Or perhaps the improvement was due to the fact that our participants were no longer so socially isolated—because the yoga was done in a group setting? Those, my friends, are extraneous variables. And there’s LOTS of these in studies on yoga and meditation. I can tell you from experience, yoga is not an easy topic to study scientifically!
Here’s another bit of interference to consider: The measuring devices scientists use don’t always give very precise measurements. One measure of mood psychologists use quite a bit is something called a self-report questionnaire—a survey that asks study participants to rate their feelings on numeric scales. The problem with self-report is that if I ask you to fill out a scale about how you’re feeling, your answers will be affected by what you think I want to hear as well as what you want to believe about yourself. This is something psychologists call ‘social desirability concerns.’ To put it simply: We’re rarely completely honest when a researcher asks us to share our feelings.
Here’s a question to get the discussion going: Do you think we need scientific research on yoga (or other spiritual practice) to prove it’s worthwhile? If not, what do you think the value is in such research?
Read the the final two things all yogis should know about science in Part 2: When Brain Scans Deceive and Scientists Lie.